Rebranded Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus features no clowns but a lot of humanity

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The new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus won’t send in the clowns. The clowns are out.

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey came out of retirement this year, seven years after it reportedly went out of business for good, putting a different face on the enterprise was clearly on the minds of Feld Entertainment, its longtime producers.

It’s a happy human face, not a grotesquely painted one. The circus is coming to Hartford’s XL Center May 3-5 after playing at Bridgeport’s Total Mortgage Arena in March.

The circus is still officially known as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, but this edition is also branded in a lot of its advertising and merchandise as just “Ringling!” That’s a questionable marketing tactic in Connecticut, where legendary circus pioneer P.T. Barnum was born, where he served in town and state government and where there’s a museum named for him. Barnum would also seem to deserve higher billing in general, since the main thing people know about American circuses from the time when this one was dormant is the movie “The Greatest Showman” in which Hugh Jackman plays Barnum.

‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is back as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus returns to CT

This circus takes a cue from that movie in the way it wants to humanize its stars. It wants to introduce the circus as something amazing yet also approachable. Several different performers serve as co-hosts and take on invented character roles. Wesley is a young unicyclist who’s presented as a newcomer to the circus world. Nick Nack is a juggler who interacts with some of the acts. Aria is a singer. Stix is a drummer. They don’t so much introduce the acts as fill in the downtime between them with light banter about what a magical world the circus is.

There is no shortage of spectacle, but this is a circus with a human side. That’s not a bad strategy, considering the competition. In a colossal circus coincidence, the same weekend that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey comes to Hartford is the weekend Cirque du Soleil show “Bazzar” ends its monthlong engagement. “Bazzar” takes place in a big top on Market Street through May 5.

Cirque du Soleil is a fantastic experience, but it involves costumes and masks and characters and moody lighting and exotic dreamscapes. There’s definitely an opening for a more old-fashioned circus, one with recognizable people in it doing amazing stunts on their own terms, a circus that works more like a vaudeville show than a cohesive theatrical work of art.

At Ringling!, the performers are announced on video screens almost like they’re in a competitive sports event. They cheer for each other. They cheer for themselves in that emphatic sort of “Heyyy!!” dismount that’s frowned upon in Cirque du Soleil shows. As for costumes, Ringling! still goes for old-school sequined or superhero-type outfits.

In the new Ringling! circus, full-cast parade-like processions and similar ceremonies are out. Loose full-cast dance routines are in. If you can’t get a good view of a stunt, there are video close-ups on the arena’s projection screen, which may seem more distancing but somehow enhances the human-size elements of the experience.

Unlike the old days of ringmasters and announcers, the new routines are not set up verbally with lavish descriptions of how extraordinary they are. Instead, the acts are allowed to be ordinary until they’re not. Just as the hosts are made out to be regular folks who’ve been made into something grander, a lot of the circus routines are things we can vaguely envision doing ourselves, until our minds are blown by unforeseen possibilities of these normal-seeming acts. There are people jumping rope, but then they’re jumping rope within a much larger jump rope at the same time. Then there is jump roping done with bodies instead of ropes. There are bicyclists riding fast up and down ramps, which is something you can see in local skateparks, but then they flip and somersault on the bikes or land on one wheel on a small platform. They behave like they have no fear of falling. There are glorified Double Dutch and drum team routines that get incredibly acrobatic. Someone might do an impressive flip, then do it a dozen times in a row, for a whole different level of excitement.

There are also of course the old circus standbys like high-wires acts, trapeze artist, teeterboards and hoops. There are multiple balancing acts, in which they do things like stand on their heads on top of someone else’s head.

Are there really no clowns? Well, one of the few acts that gets to appear more than once in the show is Equivokee, a trio of jugglers from the Ukraine who do their tricks while they also do pratfalls, goofy faces and physical shtick that comes off like a less violent Three Stooges. They’re hysterical, and their comedy is grand enough to work in an arena setting.

There’s also humor from the co-hosts, but it’s more gentle and subtle and doesn’t telegraph well on this scale. When Wesley deigns to ride a four-wheel vehicle, it’s one with the four wheels vertically on top of each other. Aria’s singing accompanies some beautiful acrobatic acts. The audience gets to choose, by their cheering and applause, whether, while on a teeterboard, which two musical instruments Nick Nack will jump over while balanced atop a teetering pile of boards and balls. Leaning into the generic rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, Stix does a big drum solo suspended in the air using fire sticks for drumsticks.

Occasionally the co-host Aria might say something like “That was incredible!” but there’s no longer the overblown intros of yore where we’re told how amazing and unique something is before it even happens. The tricks in this show have a credible basis to build on. You don’t need to be told they’re astounding. You understand what’s being done, they ramp it up and you’re naturally astounded.

There are no animal acts in the newfangled Ringling! show. Nick Nack does interact with a robotic dog named Bailey Circuit, but those bits are a bit precious, too small and a little creepy.

It’s not technically a three-ring set-up, since they’re not rings, but there are several separate performing areas and they’re often used all at the same time. You may not know where to look. Sometimes the acts are carefully synched up so that the biggest stunts don’t have competition at the moment they’re happening. The other acts glance or gesture toward whatever the main attraction is. It’s a terrific bit of theater where members of a circus community pause to appreciate each other’s work. When in doubt, it’s safest for audiences to keep an eye on what’s happening in the middle.

When there are several simultaneous acts, the circus is really in business. Less successful are the attempts at intimacy and solo acts. An arena can be a vast place. On this scale, the sound quality can be bad so jokey one-liners and light dialogue get completely lost. The songs and patter don’t work well, but the routines do, especially when the performers are flying through the air.

What really sells this circus is the larger than life stuff, like Wesley riding a unicycle that’s over 34 feet tall, or the Double Wheel of Destiny, which is like two human-sized hamster wheels attached to each other so they look like a gigantic pair of eyeglasses. The daredevil Navas troupe from South Africa runs around inside these wheels, then runs around on the outside of them. They skip and jump and flip and basically defy all the laws of gravity and physics.

The big final act in the show is as traditional as it gets: A woman named Skyler, known as the Ringling Rocket, is fired out of a cannon. This is something that arenas like the XL Center are made for. She really does soar through the air. A landing pad is hastily inflated — the tech crew can be as fun to watch as the performers here — and she lands with a flourish and a big lighting effect. Skyler’s whole flight is over in a couple of seconds, but it’s worth it.

The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus runs May 3-5 at the XL Center, 1 Civic Center Plaza, Hartford. Performances are Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. and Sunday at noon and 4 p.m. $34.50-$113.35.